Most difficult instrument to record?

Editors' Blogs

I And Thou, sorta

October 26, 2010

Martin Buber, the philosopher, once wrote (if I may paraphrase roughly), "Only that within you that is me can hear what I am saying." That seems like kind of a high-flown idea to put in a blog about music recording technology, but as this magazine's most prolific reviewer, it's an idea that is very much on my mind when I do reviews... and it's something that you all should keep in mind as you read reviews, be they mine, those of another of my writers, or outside of our magazine.

Think about it: only that within you that is me can hear what I am saying. That can be taken in several ways, but the way in which I am talking about here is the way in which manufacturers design gear.

I know, I know... "Whaaaa?" Bear with me.

When we think of the word "microphone", what does it mean? To me, it means "a device that transduces audio in the air into an electrical signal". That's very literal, but that's to be expected from a former nuclear physicist who now edits a magazine. When you think of the word "microphone", do you think of a scientific definition? Probably not. You think of the SM57 that gives you that great sound from your Marshall stack, or the R-121 that someone lent you to record acoustic guitar on that indie-folk project you did last month, or that U87 they have in the big studio downtown that you lust after because it makes your vocals sound magnificent, or that vintage ribbon mic you saw on display at your local audio dealership, or something in a picture with Elvis, with Sinatra...

What is a mic? It's a device that transduces audio into electricity. It can be an SM57 with a moving coil of wire, or a R-121 with a flapping ribbon of aluminum, or a U87 with a flexing circle of coated mylar, or the speaker from an old Yamaha NS10M monitor stuck to a mic stand by its driver magnet with jacks soldered to its wires (thanks, Ferguson). All very different, but all mics.

When a mic manufacturer builds a mic, he's already way past the scientific definition. In most cases, he's already decided on what the mic's basic operating principle will be, how its electronics and capsule will be built, and how it all goes together in a casing with a grille... he's thinking about how he can tweak that design to get the most out of what the user will be recording with it. Maybe he wants to design a mic with a rich old character that adds magic to whatever it touches; maybe he wants a mic that's clinically precise, for room calibration or for very clean room recordings; or maybe he has a very specific source in mind and wants his mic to complement it. Larry Villella of ADK thinks about that a lot, I'll bet, considering you can get a Berlin tweaked for everything from guitar cabs to trumpets.

When the manufacturer puts his mic on the market, if he's smart he'll give you some idea of what to do with his mic. Not just anyone can say, "This mic sounds fantastic on everything", and get away with it! (In fact, I'm not sure if anyone truly can, but that's just me.) The application of the mic or at least the sound it imparts has to be part of the decision to purchase the mic, and then to use it vs. something else in your locker. When we review the mic, we keep that in mind, and we try to pass that information on to our readers—what does it prove when you slap a mic that's designed for extended treble response and a rolled-off low end in front of a kick drum and then complain that you're only getting beater snap?

This extends beyond mics, to every product we test: mixers, recorders, interfaces, converters, software... oh, my gosh, especially software! How can fifty different DAWs, all of which purport to do exactly the same damn things, look and feel and operate so drastically differently? To make the review make sense, you have to get inside the creator's head and see what he was aiming at, and communicate that through to the readership. If a product doesn't make sense to you, you can't discuss it sensibly, and it's important to recognize the difference between "I just can't wrap my head around this product, but it's likely someone else could... time to find another reviewer" and "this product was designed by morons, I could send it to eight different people and they'd all reach the same conclusion". If a product calls out certain features and ignores others, you have to understand why that is; it's seductive to think that your own criteria for a "good" device are the same as everyone else's, and that if a product lacks something you rely on, it's automatically junk. Well, maybe someone else doesn't care about what you do in that regard!

All this is on my mind as I put the December issue to bed. You'll be seeing it soon, with some three dozen reviews of all kinds of products for our Gift Guide. To buy something as a present, you'd like to know that it does its job properly, not just that it looks sexy in a brochure... so we review every piece we feature, a mind-bogglingly difficult task that we tackle once a year. And as I do these reviews, I try to see how each product was envisioned by its creators, and translate that vision to something a reader can relate to, or not. 

It's a fun challenge, and hey, it lets me mingle microphones with philosophy. I love my job.


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Kef America

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